County schools focus on ongoing safety and security

Nearly a month after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, local schools are looking at ways to better ensure student safety.

"You can never be too diligent, or too careful," said Bob Moshier, spokesman for Anne Arundel County Public Schools. "We continue to take measures we believe are prudent and reasonable."

In Anne Arundel County, Moshier said, the schools have "for years" been partnered with the county, Fort Meade and Annapolis police departments, and COUNTY emergency response and health agencies. Since the Newtown shooting Dec. 14, Moshier said that partnership has grown stronger, as more conversations between police and schools occur regarding emergency drills and lockdowns.

Every month, Moshier said, the schools run a pre-determined emergency drill. For the month of the December, the drill was — coincidentally — an armed intruder situation.

There are 20 armed police officers at all 12 Anne Arundel high schools, and nine of the middle schools, Moshier said. All buildings are locked while school is in session, and visitors must buzz into the building to gain admittance. Once inside, the visitor's driver's license is run through a sex offender database.

"It's one more layer we have," Moshier said. "The emphasis has been on diligence when it comes to procedures already in place."

In Prince George's County, the school system is also partnered with the county's sheriff's department, and trained deputies are, according to the system's website, at all county high schools. More than 100 "security assistants," who monitor campuses and security cameras, are employed by the system.

Meanwhile, in Howard County, a Joint Task Force on School Safety has been established to review ways to improve security at schools and the community.

"We can't ever, 100 percent, prevent bad things from happening, but what can we do to minimize the odds?" said County Executive Ken Ulman, who announced the formation of the task force Dec. 17. "In everything we do, we can always do better."

Ulman and Howard Superintendent Renee Foose both spoke at the first community forum held by the task force Tuesday, Jan. 8 at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia. About 200 people attended the forum; the response from the public was so great that a second forum was scheduled for Monday, Jan. 14, also at Wilde Lake.

The task force is broken up into three subcommittees: one charged to look at the physical security and security protocols in schools, chaired by the schools' acting Chief of Operations and Finance Ken Roey; one looking at emergency planning, chaired by Howard Chief of Police Bill McMahon; and one focused on safe and nurturing schools and community, chaired by the schools' Executive Director of School Improvement and Administration, Bill Ryan.

The subcommittees — made up by representatives from the school system; county government, fire, police and rescue staff; the county's public health and mental health departments, students and parents — will meet throughout January and February, and present their findings to Ulman, Foose and the Board of Education in March.

"We need short-term outcomes and long-term outcomes, recognizing that school security is a dynamic process you continue to respond to," Foose said. "You can't predict what these events are going to be."

For an hour, audience members broke into focus groups to discuss what they felt worked, and did not work, in each of the areas being explored by the task force.

Suggestions ran the gamut from locking doors, monitoring cameras, doing background checks on school volunteers, placing an armed police officer in every school and arming teachers.

Many of the suggested improvements are things that are already being done in county schools, said Kevin Burnett, coordinator of security for the school system, but "consistency is likely an issue" addressed by the task force.

Several times a year, Burnett said, members of his staff review security at schools, checking the perimeter of the buildings for unlocked doors, and seeing how far into the school they can get without being questioned. They then report to the school's principal and discuss ways to improve safety.

There currently are armed student resource officers — who are members of the Howard County Police Department — at all 12 county high schools, and six who rotate among 19 middle schools, but none at the elementary level. Schools spokeswoman Rebecca Amani-Dove said there were no plans to arm teachers or administrators.

Ben Fisher, 16, a junior at Atholton High School in Columbia, said the drills and lockdowns should be taken more seriously when they occur.

"They're viewed more as an annoyance than a precaution," he said. "At least once a year, we need to make sure that in an actual emergency, this would work."

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